How can I distinguish similar kana?

Some hiragana and katakana look similar. For example, katakana so () and n (), or shi () and tsu ().

Similar hiragana and katakana such as う and ウ may originate from the same kana. See How did and originate? Hiragana can usually be distinguished from katakana by the more rounded shape of the hiragana and the more angular shape of the katakana.

How to distinguish them

Pairs of hiragana
 (ki)  (sa) き (ki) has two lines at the top but さ (sa) only one.
 (o)  (mu) The stroke of お (o) goes down then back up and through, whereas む (mu) goes down, does a loop, then goes down and right.
 (ko)  (te) Depending on the style of writing, こ (ko) may look very similar to て (te), with a line from top to bottom. The line is usually thinner than the top and bottom lines and the angle made at the bottom left is sharper than in て (te).
 (ta)  (na) The bottom of な (na) makes a loop.
 (nu)  (me) The end of ぬ (nu) makes a loop.
 (ne)  (re) The end of ね (ne) makes a loop.
Pairs of katakana
 (shi)  (tsu) The lines in シ (shi) are more horizontal than vertical, whereas ツ (tsu) is more vertical than horizontal.
 (n)  (so) The lines in ン (n) are more horizontal than vertical, whereas ソ (so) is more vertical than horizontal.
 (u)  (wa) ウ (u) has a small line on the top but ワ (wa) has none.
 (ko)  (yu) ユ (yu) extends right at the bottom right, but the lines meet in コ (ko)
 (ku)  (ke) ケ (ke)'s horizontal part extends right at the top right, but ク (ku)'s goes down.
 (a)  (ma) The lower part of ア (a) goes down and left, but the lower part of マ (ma) goes down and right.
Hiragana and katakana pairs
 (u)  (u) The katakana is more angular and has a downward line at the left. In handwriting う (u) is often very similar to ウ (u).
 (ka)  (ka) The katakana is more angular and doesn't feature the small line at the right.
 (se)  (se) The katakana is more angular.
 (he)  (he) This usually requires context to figure out.
 (mo)  (mo) The hiragana is more curved and its central vertical line pierces the upper horizontal line. The katakana is more angular and its central vertical line only meets the upper horizontal.
 (ri)  (ri) The katakana is more angular and does not feature a bend at the top right.
 (ya)  (ya) The katakana is more angular. Note that the top line on the hiragana や (ya) is often omitted in writing.
 (tsu)  (fu) The katakana is more angular.
 (shi)  (re) The katakana is more angular.
Kanji and katakana pairs
 (o) In the kanji version, the diagonal line may be lower and cross the central vertical line. Otherwise the size of the characters and the context are the only reliable way to distinguish these.
 (ka) The only reliable way to distinguish these two is by the size of the character, and by context.
 (ro) The size of the characters and the context are the only reliable way to distinguish these.
 (ー) The chōon (長音) mark looks like the kanji for the number one. See What is the long line symbol used in katakana? The shapes are slightly different, but the context is an easy way to distinguish these, since the chōon will only follow certain katakana, but a number one will rarely occur in the midst of katakana.
 (e) The size and shape of the characters is slightly different.
 (to) The 卜 kanji is not very common in Japanese.
 (ni)
 (ro) The ro kana goes much further to the left.
 (ha) The ro kana goes much further to the left.

Examples of the above pairs

The following illustrations demonstrate the differences using various typefaces.

Differences in the Epson Kyōkasho typeface, a typeface based on handwriting
Differences in the MS Mincho typeface
Differences in the Droid Sans Fallback typeface

If you have questions, corrections, or comments, please contact Ben Bullock or use the discussion forum / Privacy

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